First News
Volume:7, Number:47
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COVER STORY
THIS WEEK

People on the Periphery

Religious fundamentalism and ultranationalism seriously threaten to marginalize the ethnic people in Bangladesh as their rights are undermined and freedom is constricted

Secularism is one of the four fundamental principles of Bangladeshi constitution. Unfortunately, communalism and extreme nationalism have branched out in our country over the course of the years. As a result, the religious and ethnic minorities are gradually becoming more and more marginalized in society. Following a string of targeted attacks and communal violence against Ahmadi, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu and Shi’a Muslim communities and the ongoing oppression of the small ethnic communities, the issue of the minority community’s safety in Bangladesh has become a pressing issue.

The minority communities face oppression in most parts of the world in varying degrees. In many countries, members of minority communities are not allowed to express their ideas and/or demand their human rights in fear of persecution. Overwhelming discrimination, lack of basic human rights, deprivation from legal support, etc., are forcing millions of people to leave their own country.The measure of a civil society is how it treats its minorities. Unfortunately, Bangladesh is getting recognized worldwide as a country hostile to its minority communities. None of the governments so far have taken any effective measure to provide protection and security to the minorities in times of crisis. The minority repression post-2001 polls still haunts the memory of most members of the minority communities. The surge of extreme religious and nationalist sentiments in recent years have made them feel more insecure than ever.

Minorities in Bangladesh Although members of the Hindu community has become synonymous to the word minority in Bangladesh, the country has a diverse range of religious, ethnic and linguistic communities. There are over 45 small ethnic groups such as Santal, Garo, Hajong, Rakhain, etc., scattered around Bangladesh. There are small groups of Shia and Ahmadi Muslims as well who are very much a part of the minority community. While the attacks on the Hindu community often makes it to the international media, the other oppressed groups remain largely unnoticed. In many respects, the ethnic minorities in the Hill Tract areas face the most discriminations in our country.

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Shahdeen Malik Legal expert

Compared to 2015, the number of minority abuse cases has increased alarmingly in 2016- 17. Many incidents of killing, kidnapping, gang rape, illegal occupation of property, destruc - tion of houses and temples, attacks in business establishments, vandalism, looting, and arson, when members of the minority communities were the victims, were reported during that time. Dangers, disturbances, and uncertainty have coiled around the minorities. We are passing a very critical time. To stop communal violence during these complex and difficult times, everyone needs to be aware of what is going on, and stand beside the minorities. Although the governm ent and administration say that the attackers will be tried by the conv entional laws, but the minorities think it is necessary to introduce new and direct laws to protect them from oppression and torture.

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Dr. Akbar Ali Khan Former caretaker government adviser

Most of the people of Bangladesh generally do not like communalism. Those who are trying to instigate communalism will be brought down by the general public one day. They will stand by the minorities, and ultimately humanity will win. Some attempts to reverse the damages are giving us hope. The High Court has asked the government to provide adequate protection to Hindus after widespread attacks on the minority community during and after the January 5 general election. Minorities have taken to the streets to demand their own safety. They formed human chains in different parts of the country. People from all walks of life have participated in these activities. The 1972 Constitution was formulated with much focus on secularism. The lawmakers of that time genuinely attempted to establish secularism, but this practice was absent in our politics from the very beginning. After the assassination of Bangabandhu in 1975, the so-called Islamic ideology started to spread across Bangladesh. The sympathy for pro-Pakistani sentiments could not be eradicated by the the Liberation War. Rather it got fueled by religion-based politics. Hopefully, people will come out of this situation one day.

Decreasing Hindu Population

The number of minority people, especially members of the Hindu community, is declining fast in Bangladesh. As per the 2011 census, the number of Hindus has decreased by 24 percent. Officials of Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) stated that the number of Hindus might be found to have declined further in the next census. In the 1901 census, Hindus comprised 33 percent of the entire population of the territory that currently belongs to Bangladesh.

The first census of independent Bangladesh in 1971 revealed that Hindus represent- ed 13 percent of the entire populace. However, by 2001 it came down to 9.3 percent. BBS’ district-based statistics of 2001 and 2011 found that Hindu population has decreased in 15 districts of the country. BBS officials said that the Hindu people of these districts simply moved to other districts. Between 2001 and 2011, the combined Hindu population in Barisal, Bhola, Jhalkathi, Pirozepur, Patuakhali, and Barguna has dropped from 816,051 to 762,479. Hindu popu- lation did not increase in any of the districts of Barisal division and declined in Bagherhat, Khulna and Satkhira districts. Hindu population growth remained unchanged in Narail and Kushtia, while it declined in Gopalganj, Madaripur, and Kishoreganj.

Why are Hindus leaving the country? Compared to the growth of the total population in Bangladesh, an alarming decrease of Hindu population has been seen in the country. According to statistics available with the government sources, the proportionate decrease in Hindu population is around 900,000. The statistics show almost elimination of Hindu population in fifteen districts in the country. The proportion of Christian, Buddhist and other religious minority population did not see any decline in the past, while the Muslim population kept on increasing manifolds. The two main reasons behind the tendency of migration by the members of minority communities are: (1) they think their future is not secured in their homeland, and (2) once they move abroad for employment or academic reasons, they decide to settle there. Some of the other reasons include economic, and social disparities and potential to have better social life abroad. Apart from this, the inconceivable anti-Hindu violence following the 2001 election compelled Hindus in thousands to emigrate from Bangladesh.

The current government has taken a number of initiatives to give equal rights to the members of the minority communities. They are getting a lot of benefits and facilities in the employment sector and holding various important government positions. Yet, the general treatment of the minorities in our society is making them rethink their future. The minorities have been subjected to horrific communal attacks many a time throughout the history. Be it the 1947 partition, 1965 India-Pakistan war, Babri Mosque incident or the very recent attack on Hindu households after the verdict of war criminal Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, the minorities have endured vicious attacks time after time. Considering the possibility of further attacks, many members of the minority communities are leaving the country for good.

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C. R. Datta Retired major general and president of Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian Unity Council

Persecution, oppression, and torture on minority citizens and ethnic groups are increasing day by day. One of the reasons behind this situation is the lack of implementation of law and justice. Instead of arresting the culprits and bringing them to justice, most of the incidents get covered up and many parties try to take political advantage out of the situations. By analyzing the background and politics of oppression against the minorities, it can be said that minorities are being used as political pawns. The religious minorities are continuously facing communal violence at national and local levels. It is a conspiracy to rid the country of minorities. It is urgent to investigate the incidents that are inconsistent with our tradition of tolerance, and ensure exemplary punishment for the culprits. However, to uphold the rights and dignity of the minorities, the state, political parties and administration have to be non-communal and secular. The hope of protecting the rights and dignity of religious and ethnic minorities is not realistic by keeping communal elements in the state and the administration, or by continuing the practice of communal/religious politics. If there was no seed of communalism planted in certain minds, then the poison tree of communalism would have never struck its roots in our society.

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Advocate Rana Dasgupta General secretary of Bangladesh Hindu, Buddhist and Christian Unity Council

In our report on Bangladesh's minority human rights situation in 2015, 261 separate incidents that took place all over the country were listed. In most of the cases, more than one person, family, and the organization have been affected. Unfortunately, the human rights situation in the country's religious-ethnic minority population has taken a much worse turn after 2015. A total of 655 cases of attacks, illegal occupation of lands, and attacks on houses, temples and business establishments of the minorities have been reported so far. Twenty-two families have been threatened to be evicted. During this time, there was a large number of attacks, vandalism, arson and lootings in different minority areas in connection with the Union Parishad elections. The number of affected in this election stand at least 8,250 people. In most of these cases, the culprits have used their political influence and power. In some cases, they have influenced the local administration in order to hinder the activities that could have ensured justice for the victims. There have been a number of incidents of property grabbing, even during the proceedings of the ongoing trial, completely disregarding court orders.

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Gayeshwar Chandra Roy Standing Committee member of BNP

There used to be a time when everyone stood beside the minority in their time of need. But now the situation has changed. Everyone has given up. Longterm neighbors seem to act like strangers during the time of the attack. If the criminals are not arrested in time and exemplary punishment is not ensured, repetition of such attacks on minorities cannot be prevented. Bangladesh used to be called the land of communal harmony. We have achieved independence at the cost of so many lives. Regardless of race and religion, people of this country participated in the Liberation War. The common dream was that there will be no communalism in this country, undemocratic-autocratic power will never be able to sprout here. But due to many political upheavals, the anti-liberation communal forces got the chance to integrate into our politics. The pro-Pakistani extremist force is gaining power in our politics. The more the use of religion is increasing in the politics, the more the elements of unrest are spreading across the country. Instead of tolerance, extremism and intolerance are growing. Militancy and extremism are the two sides of the same coin. However, the existing moderate political force is making compromises with extremism and militancy for the sake of their own political gain. The entire nation is paying the price for this compromise.

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Mujahidul Islam Selim President of Communist Party of Bangladesh

Due to the failure to understand that extremism and democracy cannot go hand in hand, terrorism and violence in the name of democratic politics have spread so intensely across the country. Consequences of this extremist politics also resulted in the continuing torture and persecution of the minorities. If we cannot kick out all kinds of extremists from politics, the overriding concerns for democratic politics in our country will persist for a long time. No matter who wins or loses the election – be it Awami League or the BNP-Jamaat coalition – the minorities get attacked. If all the minority communities leave the country and only the followers of one religion remain, will there be peace? If we look at Pakistan and Afghanistan, the example of how mixing religion and politics can be deadly combination is right in front of us. If the minority communities are forced to leave the country because of ongoing oppression and persecution, the non-communal-democratic image of Bangladesh will be completely tarnished. It is high time for the socially conscious and liberal-minded people to stand against those who want to make Bangladesh a radical militant communal country like Pakistan. Communal power cannot be tackled by administrative systems alone. A unified political, social and cultural resistance is needed to tear up the webs of conspiracy.

Growing fear

A disturbing trend of attacking the minority communities in the wake of a political conflict is persisting in our country for a long time. Following the shameful incidents of 1990, 1992 and 2001, a recent surge of fresh attacks on the minorities was seen in Ramu, Sathia and Nasirnagar. Triggered by the announcement of Delwar Hossain Sayeedi’s death sentence on February 28, 2013, the Islamist party’s supporters launched a series of vicious attacks on the members of Hindu community. The attacks lasted for weeks, spreading across several districts. More than 50 temples were left damaged and over 1,500 houses were destroyed in the attacks.

In 2012, thousands of rioters torched Buddhist temples and homes near the town of Ramu in Cox’ Bazar. The violence was sparked by a photo posted on Facebook that allegedly insulted Islam. The allegation later turned out to be unfounded, but valuable artifacts, religious texts, and temples were already burned to the ground by then. Bangladesh has long prided itself on its secular values, but the recent violence has raised serious concern about the future of communal unity in the country. The weakness of the nationalistic force and failure of the leftist force have propelled the growth of communalism in Bangladesh.

Unpunished crimes

In the last couple of years, the country was rocked by a number of serious attacks on minority communities. The initial buzz created by these incidents fizzled out soon, and most of the attacks remained unpunished. In some cases, the victims had to go through legal harassments. Following the Nasirnagar attack on October 30, 2016, police arrested over 105 people for conspiracy, vandalism, and destruction of property. Although most of the arrestees bailed out soon afterward, the completely innocent victim of this crime had to stay locked up for months. Rasraj Das, an innocent Hindu man who was falsely accused of spreading the anti-Islamic message on Facebook, was arrested, jailed and denied bail multiple times. A local cyber cafe owner named Jahangir Alam admitted to the police that he had made a fake profile in Rasraj’s name and posted the religiously sensitive message. He also said that he had done it as per instruction of Haripur Union Parishad chairman Dewan Atiqur Rahman Ankhi. Police arrested Ankhi, the alleged mastermind of the attack, on January 4, 2017. Yet, Rasraj’s bail petition got rejected on January 8. He finally got bail on January 15 and has been lying low ever since.

Similarly, the victims of Ramu attack did not get justice either. The havoc was initiated based on a rumor that an image insulting the prophet was found tagged with the Facebook account of a local Buddhist man named Uttam Barua. Uttam was arrested but got bailed when the allegation proved to be false. Despite being completely innocent, Uttam and his family had to leave the area. On the other hand, the attackers are freely roaming in the area without facing any legal consequences.

One of the worst attacks on minorities came right after the 2001 election. In Barisal, Bagherhat, Pabna, Narail, and various other districts of the country, the extremist supporters of the newly elect BNP-Jamaat government launched a series of harrowing attacks on the members of the Hindu community. Multiple occurrences of rape, murder, looting and inhuman torture occurred within a short span of time and sent shockwaves throughout the nation. However, most of the perpetrators were never brought to justice, and many of the victims end up leaving the country. When the Awami League-led grand alliance government came to power in 2008, everyone expected that the 2001 attacks will be investigated properly. However, the new government could not ensure safety for the minorities. Moreover, many leaders and activists of the ruling government actively participated in many attacks on the minorities in recent years. There are very few examples of implementation of law when it comes to the attacks on the minorities. In some cases, a few arrests were made, but the arrestees bailed out quickly. The main instigators always remain out of touch. As a result, the minorities have lost their trust reposed in the justice system and the society alike.

Presence of minorities in the job sector

In the modern world, ensuring equal rights and opportunities for the minorities is no longer an internal issue of a country. One of the yardsticks to measure the enforcement of equal rights is to assess the participation rate of the minorities in a country’s job sector.

According to the latest national census (2011), minorities make up about 10 percent of the total population of Bangladesh. Of belowthem, 9 percent are Hindu. The constitution of Bangladesh ensures equal rights for everyone. As for now, there is no separate quota in the public sector jobs for religious minorities such as Hindus. However, there is a 5 percent quota for the members of the small ethnic groups. Due to the confidentiality policy of the Public Service Commission and the associated ministry, getting access to proper data regarding this issue is quite hard. However, based on the research of Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB), it is evident that the participation rate of the minorities in public sector job has always hovered around 10 percent. During the terms of different governments, the percentage changed slightly, but always remained around the average of 10.67 percent. Compared to the overall minority population, their participation rate in public services is highly satisfactory. Unlike India, members of the minority communities, especially Hindus, are holding many important positions in the government and public sector, which is a great achievement for Bangladesh.

Even during the term of the autocratic Ershad government, a significant number of minorities were appointed in public sector jobs. In fact, the rate was significantly higher than the democratic BNP and AL government’s regims. TIB researcher Mohammad Rezaul Karim wrote, “The finding is that the representation of the minority communities in the general cadre of BCS job was noticeably higher during the Ershad regime (13.22 percent) than that of BNP (5.05 percent), and Awami League (6.34 percent) regimes. In case of professional cadres, no remarkable difference was observed”. The participation rate of minorities in public services in Bangladesh is much higher than that of India. Participation of Muslims in public service jobs in various states of India (2006) is shown in the table belowthem One important element that gets completely neglected in any discussion about minorities in Bangladesh is the condition of the Dalit community. Members of the Dalit/Harijan community makes up about 50 percent of the Hindu community, but they are severely deprived of basic human rights. There are over 6.5 million Dalit Hindus in Bangladesh. The existing statistics never portray their condition separately. Due to their low position in the caste system, they are shunned by other castes of Hindu community as well. Deprived of education and other basic rights, most Dalit Hindus earn their livelihood by doing extremely low-paying and socially degrading jobs. In many cases, they are not even allowed in the same crematorium as the other Hindu castes.

Current scenario

In his latest published book, Dr. Akbar Ali Khan, a veteran retired bureaucrat and eminent economist of the country, presented the following data about the first-class officers only at the Bangladesh Secretariat.

A point to be noted that although the book was published in 2017, the data mentioned in the table above was collected in October 2013. The table shows that 7.92 percent Hindus are working in the secretariat as first class officers in 2013. It is safe to say that the number and percentage increased in the four years that followed. There are not many available data regarding the participation of the minorities in other public services. However, in October 2015 Awami League’s unofficial branch Olama League presented data about the minority recruitment rate in public services. The organization criticized the administration for being biased towards Hindus. According to the data provided by them, out of the 1,420 people recruited as police SI in 2013, 334 were Hindus, which is 21.97 percent of the total recruitment. Of the 93 people recruited by the National Intelligence Agency (NSI) in 2011, 23 was Hindu, making up 24.73 percent of the total recruitment. Recently, 22 of the 12 people who were appointed as Assistant Judges in the sixth batch were Hindus, which is 17 percent

A cabinet secretary, who did not want his name disclosed said, as per the estimate of 2006, the participation of minorities in public services was about 19 percent. Today, that rate has increased to almost 29 percent. He also said that TIB research has underscored the actual participation rate. When we looked up the TIB research, we found that TIB did not include data of all the BCS examinations in its data calculation process.In the table above, recruitment data of several BCS exams are missing. So, the actual rate of minorities in public services are likely to be way more than 10 percent. In an interview to BBC on June 2016, BJP National Executive Committee Member Arun Halder said that people of the Hindu community in Bangladesh do not feel safe. As a response to that comment, prime minister's political adviser HT Imam told BBC, “Party-wise we are secular, and if you look at the government, you will see there are comparatively many people from the minority communities – and so is the case in workplaces or elsewhere.”

Based on his comment and the available data, it can be said that the participation of minorities in public services and other jobs is relatively higher than the population proportion rate. Maybe because of that reason, many Indian citizens are working in Bangladesh both legally and illegally. According to a 2013 article in India’s Silicon magazine, “There are Indians who are staying in Bangladesh and there are about 500,000 Indians presently residing. People who are migrating to Bangladesh illegally are from West Bengal, Meghalaya, Assam, Tripura, and Mizoram. According to the government authorities of the country, most of them come in search of job opportunities and mostly work in NGOs, garments and textile industries. These Indians remit USD3.76 billion to their home country and the number is expected to increase in next few years. Silicon India reported on My 21, 2013, Bangladesh ranked 5th largest amongst countries from which the Indian nationals sent remittance to India.

Not only in public services, but minority participation is satisfactory even in the private sector. A 2011 report published by American State Department said that religious minorities were not underrepresented in the private sector. Despite all of these data, one question still lingers. If the majority of Hindu community in Bangladesh (6.5 million) is deprived of their basic human rights, how can we assess the real participation rate of the Hindu/minority community properly?

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